The Oil and the Glory

The shale gas bonanza — along with its critics — comes to England

The shakeup over shale gas — a newly available fuel that has overturned assumptions about energy, climate-change and geopolitics — has now stretched across the Atlantic to England. A drilling company backed by John Browne, the former CEO of BP, says it has discovered the gas equivalent of up to 35 billion barrels of oil. ...

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The shakeup over shale gas — a newly available fuel that has overturned assumptions about energy, climate-change and geopolitics — has now stretched across the Atlantic to England. A drilling company backed by John Browne, the former CEO of BP, says it has discovered the gas equivalent of up to 35 billion barrels of oil. In oil, a find of 1 billion barrels is regarded as a supergiant.

Until now, the United States has been the epicenter of the shale gas disruption. This gas is locked into barely porous shale rock a mile and more beneath the surface of the Earth. Over the last few years, drillers have extracted the gas using a method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — injecting a mixture of water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into the rock — which has produced a bonanza of new supplies in the United States. Estimates are that it is sufficient to meet current U.S. consumption for a century.

Since gas emits just a third to a half the CO2 as coal, this gas glut — to the degree it results in an accelerated shift away from coal-fired to gas-fired power plants — could lower U.S. emissions of heat-trapping gases.  As for geopolitics, the gas has already had the boomerang effect of casting doubt on Russia’s economic and political leverage in Europe — Russia supplies more than a quarter of Europe’s gas, but the shale gas glut has challenged that market dominance.

All this impact has led to a search for shale gas elsewhere, especially in Europe and China.

Yet with the shale gas comes a backlash of local politics. In the U.S., drillers have been confronted with a furious protest movement of critics who say fracking contaminates drinking water supplies. In Europe, the protests have preceded any discoveries — in the summer, for instance, France banned fracking.

Now, a U.K. company called Cuadrilla Resources says it has indications that a formation called the Bowland Shale is comparable in scale to the best U.S. finds, reports Guy Chazan at the Wall Street Journal. Cuadrilla’s Dennis Carlton told Bloomberg’s Ben Farey that the thickness of the gas-laden shale — 3,000 feet in places — is up to 10 times that of the ultra-rich Marcellus Shale that underlies New York and Pennsylvania. Cuadrilla’s main investors include the hedge fund Riverstone Holdings, which is run by former BP CEO Browne.

That is just gas in place. What actually can be extracted will be much less. But the announcement caused much excitement in both directions — from those enthused that the U.S. bonanza can be repeated on the other side of the Atlantic, and groups that wish to stop it.  

As the company made its announcement in the Imperial Hotel in the city of Blackpool, a small protest was held out on the street by a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, the BBC reports. WWF, an environmental group, urged the U.K. government to call a moratorium on shale gas drilling, and instead to focus its efforts on development non-fossil fuel technologies. These critics are invigorated by two earthquakes that happened in the area in June, after which the company halted drilling.

That John Browne is the money behind this venture is ironic. In his long tenure, Browne rebranded BP into the green oil company, casting the company’s name as meaning "Beyond Petroleum." His apparently successful into shale gas goes the other direction as far as critics are concerned.

The shakeup over shale gas — a newly available fuel that has overturned assumptions about energy, climate-change and geopolitics — has now stretched across the Atlantic to England. A drilling company backed by John Browne, the former CEO of BP, says it has discovered the gas equivalent of up to 35 billion barrels of oil. In oil, a find of 1 billion barrels is regarded as a supergiant.

Until now, the United States has been the epicenter of the shale gas disruption. This gas is locked into barely porous shale rock a mile and more beneath the surface of the Earth. Over the last few years, drillers have extracted the gas using a method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — injecting a mixture of water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into the rock — which has produced a bonanza of new supplies in the United States. Estimates are that it is sufficient to meet current U.S. consumption for a century.

Since gas emits just a third to a half the CO2 as coal, this gas glut — to the degree it results in an accelerated shift away from coal-fired to gas-fired power plants — could lower U.S. emissions of heat-trapping gases.  As for geopolitics, the gas has already had the boomerang effect of casting doubt on Russia’s economic and political leverage in Europe — Russia supplies more than a quarter of Europe’s gas, but the shale gas glut has challenged that market dominance.

All this impact has led to a search for shale gas elsewhere, especially in Europe and China.

Yet with the shale gas comes a backlash of local politics. In the U.S., drillers have been confronted with a furious protest movement of critics who say fracking contaminates drinking water supplies. In Europe, the protests have preceded any discoveries — in the summer, for instance, France banned fracking.

Now, a U.K. company called Cuadrilla Resources says it has indications that a formation called the Bowland Shale is comparable in scale to the best U.S. finds, reports Guy Chazan at the Wall Street Journal. Cuadrilla’s Dennis Carlton told Bloomberg’s Ben Farey that the thickness of the gas-laden shale — 3,000 feet in places — is up to 10 times that of the ultra-rich Marcellus Shale that underlies New York and Pennsylvania. Cuadrilla’s main investors include the hedge fund Riverstone Holdings, which is run by former BP CEO Browne.

That is just gas in place. What actually can be extracted will be much less. But the announcement caused much excitement in both directions — from those enthused that the U.S. bonanza can be repeated on the other side of the Atlantic, and groups that wish to stop it.  

As the company made its announcement in the Imperial Hotel in the city of Blackpool, a small protest was held out on the street by a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, the BBC reports. WWF, an environmental group, urged the U.K. government to call a moratorium on shale gas drilling, and instead to focus its efforts on development non-fossil fuel technologies. These critics are invigorated by two earthquakes that happened in the area in June, after which the company halted drilling.

That John Browne is the money behind this venture is ironic. In his long tenure, Browne rebranded BP into the green oil company, casting the company’s name as meaning "Beyond Petroleum." His apparently successful into shale gas goes the other direction as far as critics are concerned.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>